Tuesday, 11 February 2020
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Families and Social Services (Senator Ruston) to a question without notice asked by Senator Siewert today relating to the cashless debit card.
Just to remind the chamber: these are the provisions that were agreed to by the government as a deal with the ALP when the last expansion of the trials was put through this place. The opt-out provisions were put in place then. I'll just remind the chamber that originally they didn't work; the government had to come back and alter those provisions. These are so that a person can apply to exit the cashless debit card if they can demonstrate reasonable and responsible management of their affairs, including financial affairs, in accordance with the criteria set out in the legislation. The problem here is that those criteria were always set at a level that was going to make it extremely difficult for people to get off the card, and it's quite obvious what is happening. According to the latest data available from the Department of Social Services via the government data website, which is as of 31 December, 635 people had applied. The numbers of applications from different areas are listed: 226 from Bundaberg, 196 from the Goldfields region, 44 from East Kimberley, 21 from Ceduna and 148 from out of area. It says: 'Approved: none. Not approved: none.' So the minister was technically correct when she said, 'Oh, but we haven't said no to anyone,' but the fact is that they have not said anything. Fair enough—the renewed process didn't actually kick in, once the kinks were ironed out to actually make the thing work, until early September. But the fact is that that was five months ago, and we still haven't seen anybody able to exit this program.
The minister said there are complex provisions. Yes, they are complex, which we said at the time. They are designed, in my opinion, to make sure people couldn't get off. She then went on to blame the states and territories. So now, of course, the Commonwealth standard is: 'Use the complexity excuse—tick. Now we'll use the states and territories excuse.' The fact is that you don't want people to be able to exit the cashless debit card. These are people who are going to have to jump over hurdles that are so high. They have to find documentation that we said at the time was going to be extremely hard to find. Finding the documentation to be able to get people to support you in making that application is extremely difficult.
You've got to remember that many of these 635 people actually started applying and ringing about this before July last year, when the provisions were supposed to kick in. So not only have they been waiting since the form technically became available but they were waiting for months and months prior to that. So some of these people who have applied will have been waiting for almost a year to get off the cashless debit card.
I asked—and the minister did not answer the question—about local partners. What people also have to do is go to the local partners, and my argument there is that it could be very strongly argued that there is a conflict of interest for these local partners, because it's in their interests to keep people on the cashless debit card. The government wants to keep people on the cashless debit card. So is anybody out there really surprised that the government hasn't exited anyone? In fact, it hasn't dealt with any of this.
So these are my questions—and these will be raised during estimates, so I give a heads-up to the government. Just how many people in the Department of Social Services are actually working on this exit process? When there are 635 applications, just how many are working to make this process work? How long have some of these applications been in? What qualifications do the Department of Social Services staff working on this have to deal with what the minister herself said are very complex provisions? Given the high proportion of First Nations people on the card, what resources are being made available in remote communities to enable people to access the form properly and fill in the form properly, and to make sure that it's culturally sensitive and in language for those whose first language is their own language and for whom English could be their third or fourth language? What other resources is the government investing in making sure that people with low literacy and numeracy levels are able to access and make these applications? My question also is: how many of these applications have not been filled in to what the department thinks is the standard required because the form is not adequately accessible for people for whom English is not their first language? (Time expired)
Question agreed to.